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Great news about the 1940 Census

It took four months, but the 1940 U.S. Census is finally fully indexed! I don’t remember how long it took for them to index the 1930 census, but that was released 10 years ago. Frankly, I don’t remember what I ate for lunch today!

Now that the census is fully indexed, you no longer have to use the old method of trying to find people based on their address. This method is still valid, but now that all names are online, you can search by name and skip the middle man.

Even though the census is now completely done, it is still free for about a year or so. There are multiple ways to search. Let’s start with Ancestry.com.

Go to Ancestry.com’s home page and click on the banner for the 1940 census. You can try to just search for the person you want, but if you’re searching for Vito Russo, you might get too many matches. You can narrow down the search results by using one (or all) of three possible additional fields. You can type a birth year. Be sure to select +/- 1 year, even if you know the exact birth year. You can select +/- 2, 5 or 10 years if you are really not sure. You can also type a birthplace, but since the census only lists the U.S. state or the foreign country, you can only type “Illinois” or “Italy” which may or may not help your search. I think at least 3 of the Vito Russo’s were born in Italy! Ok 3,000!

The field called “Lived In” is a good one. You can at least limit your search to the Vito Russo who lived in Elmwood Park in 1940. (This search will only help you for where they lived in 1940. If they spent two years in Pennsylvania in the 1930s, and 10 years in Italy, it won’t help you with the 1940 census search.)

Finally, you can try to add a family member (or more than one). So if Vito’s wife was Antonia, you can click “Choose” and select the relationship to Vito. (In this case, “spouse”.) Then fill in her first name. You can also choose “Child” and type in the name of a child of Vito’s. But remember to only list a child if you know they lived at home during the 1940 census. Picking your aunt who was born in 1942 won’t help.

The key to finding the right family is to choose the person in that household with the most unusual name, so you won’t get so many results. Maybe Vito Russo is a common Italian name, but he had a son Carminantonio who was born around 1935. He’s five years old during the census so it’s very likely he lived at home with his parents. So search for Carminantonio Russo instead and maybe you won’t find quite so many.

Incidentally, this type of searching on Ancestry.com can be used for many other databases they offer. You can stay at the home page and do a search similar to what I described above. But keep in mind that unless the person you search for AND the other relative are mentioned on the document in question, the search won’t find it. For the U.S. Census, both parents and child, or husband/wife are on the same census page because they live in the same household.

Ok, you can also use FamilySearch.org as well. Again, look for the banner or large graphic about the 1940 census and click it. The search screen is quite different but asks for most of the same information. Type the first and last name. You can then choose to type in the name of the U.S. state they lived in, or the name of the county, or the name of the city or town. There is a place to search for “relationship to head of household”. You might want to skip this one. If you have not found them in the 1940 census yet, you might not know who the head of the household is. For example, Vito Russo would seem logically to be the head of household, but what if he and his family lived with his mother? She might be listed as “head of household” and Vito is listed as “Son”. It doesn’t matter if he’s 57! Momma runs the show!! Ask her. She’ll tell you!

So even if you search for the son “Carminantonio” and search for “Son”, you might not find him because he’s actually “grandson” of the head of household.

You can “search by life events”, which is a fancy way of searching by limiting the birth year or birthplace, just like at Ancestry.com. This site asks for a year range. You know Vito was born in 1914, but please search for 1913-1915 to cover yourself.

You can also search for “any household member”. In other words, click “any household member” and add another name of someone who was living in that house, and you don’t have to specify how they were related to the person you’re searching for.

The good news is that FamilySearch.org is pretty good about handling ethnic spellings of first names. I typed “Dominick” and it found “Domenic”. But it has problems finding my grandparents, because someone misread the handwriting. (“Dommie”, seriously?) Be careful when the search screens of both Ancestry and FamilySearch ask if you want to search for “Exact”. They may also put a check box next to the first or last name, which is how you can ask for a “fuzzy” last name but an exact first name. As with most on-line records, you will find that a person who had trouble speaking English was sounding out their name to a clerk who was not from their part of the world. Then they hand-wrote the name they way they heard it. THEN in 2012 someone else who never met this family ended up reading the handwriting and typing it into the index. It is quite common to find the name spelled wrong in ways you can’t figure out with logic and reason. If you are 100% certain of the name, you can add a note to the field with the correct spelling. It will then appear in future searches, but it will be listed as an alternate spelling. Whatever they found during the indexing is the final name.

If you have trouble finding someone in Ancestry.com, try FamilySearch.org. Can’t hurt. I’m not 100 percent sure if all these sites are using the same index or different indexes. They were all finished at the same time, so I tend to think it’s the same index, but the way each site searches might be just different enough to help you find your ancestor. Happy hunting!

If you have any questions, send me an e-mail at italianroots@comcast.net and please put “Fra Noi” in the subject line.

About Dan Niemiec

Dan Niemiec has been the genealogy columnist for Fra Noi since 2004. For the past 25 years, he has researched his genealogy back 17 generations, plus tracing descendants of his ancestors, yielding 74,000 relatives. His major focus is on civil and church records in Italy, Chicago vital records, Chicago Catholic records and most major genealogy web sites. He has given dozens of presentations to many local and some national genealogy societies on topics such as cemetery research, Catholic records, Italian records, Ellis Island and newspaper research, among others.

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